A Deaf Superhero Makes History
Filmmaker Chloé Zhao’s Eternals, released in November 2021, introduced the first deaf superhero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Portrayed by deaf actor Lauren Ridloff, deaf superhero Makkari, who has super speed and is a member of the Eternals, was originally depicted as a white, hearing male in the Marvel comics. In the new film, Makkari is a deaf woman of color. Ridloff made history by becoming the first deaf actor to portray a superhero in a Marvel feature film.
Though Hollywood has a long way to go in terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, the portrayal of a deaf character by a deaf actor has stirred conversation about the onscreen representation of d/Deaf and disabled actors and the need for greater inclusion and accessibility.
Hollywood’s History of Exclusion
A study of networks, cable, and streaming services in 2018 by the Ruderman Family Foundation showed that actors with disabilities were portraying only 21.6% of characters with disabilities. Though the study showed progress from 2016, most disabled characters were still being played by non-disabled actors.
The challenges of being disabled in Hollywood aren’t new. Thirty-one years after the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, many disabled actors still report disability discrimination in the workplace, and many don’t ask for accommodations out of fear their disability will make them less likely to be hired, according to a report by UCLA’s National Arts and Disability Center.
Time and again, disabled characters are played by non-disabled actors. Recent examples include Sia’s movie Music, in which neurotypical actor Maddie Ziegler plays a nonverbal, autistic character. The movie received criticism for its blatant disregard of neurodiverse representation and harmful portrayal of autism.
The Importance of Disability Representation and Accessibility for Actors and Movie-Goers
In an interview with the New York Times, Ridloff said, “[Eternals] means my two boys, who are also deaf, will grow up in a world where there are superheroes who are deaf. It means they’ll be able to dream a bit more wildly.” In addition to Ridloff’s monumental portrayal of Makkari, deaf actress Alaqua Cox will also play a deaf superhero, Maya Lopez, in Hawkeye. Lopez is deaf and Native American, and Cox was born deaf on the Menominee Indian Reservation in Wisconsin.
Equally crucial to disability representation is accessibility for deaf and disabled actors and movie-goers. Ridloff was open with the press about accommodations she received on set, such as using a laser pen for her interpreters to indicate the start of a scene. However, she also discussed the challenges of not wanting to seem fragile or asking for too much. Though “Hollywood is finally figuring out why it’s so important to have representation,” Ridloff said to the Times, “… now it’s more about how. That’s the part that’s more tricky.” To achieve accessibility on set, disabled talent needs to be a part of the entire process from the beginning.
Along with the importance of disabled representation and accessibility for actors, movie-goers need to experience films equitably. Ridloff has advocated for captions and subtitles, saying, “I would love to see captioning and subtitles really become the norm. I think that subtitles benefit everyone: deaf, hard of hearing, hearing.”
Marvel Studios worked with RespectAbility to host an inclusive screening, offering open captions and American Sign Language (ASL) interpretation for the premiere of Eternals in Los Angeles. However, captioning and ASL interpretation have been sparse in other screenings, and some members of the d/Deaf and hard-of-hearing communities have faced challenges in finding accessible screenings.
Want to learn about closed captioning best practices for media and entertainment? Download the guide:
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